Hard Decisions

First-year college students experience a variety of feelings when leaving home for the first time. When Melanie Garman Neumann ’98 first attended Saint Mary’s, she struggled with anxiety and longed to return home. Missing her family and friends, she called home—a lot. As the semester wore on, her parents knew it was growing more difficult for Melanie and gave her permission to come home to Pennsylvania.

She thought about it. On the one hand, Saint Mary’s had been her college of choice. Her grandfather was a dedicated Notre Dame fan and her mom dreamed of a life at Saint Mary’s for herself and for her daughter. But Melanie longed to be closer to her parents, since they too were going through a difficult time as they worked through a divorce.

“But instead of staying home after break, I came back. I’m so glad that I did,” she says now. “I made great friends and I got an amazing education. Sticking it out was a hard decision, but it’s why I’m where I am today.”

Neumann and her husband Michael (ND ’98) live in Los Angeles and have three children. She recounts that pivotal moment—and understands how it has influenced her career and how she raises her kids.

“I tell my children, ‘the hardest decisions in your life, I guarantee, will be the best ones you ever make. Don’t let fear stop you.’ And for me, staying at Saint Mary’s was the best decision I ever made. Hands down.”

In 2013, she co-founded the nonprofit organization, PRESENT NOW. After learning just how dire the circumstances are for children of domestic violence, Neumann channeled her passion for justice to the kids whose moms are facing extraordinary hardship.

Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness for women and children across the nation. According to the National Resource Center for Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience a pattern of abusive behavior at some point in their life. When the alternative is homelessness, survivors often find themselves staying in an abusive home, especially when children are involved.

But when they do find their way to a transitional shelter, survivors have taken an important first step. For the children who’ve come with them, they too must learn to adapt to a new life away from their familiar surroundings as their mothers rebuild their lives financially and emotionally.

“Many times, women escape from their abusive partner with the clothes on their back and a few personal belongings,” Neumann said. “Often, it’s when their partner is at work or it’s in the middle of the night when they are asleep. The situation can be dangerous, and it is always traumatizing. The kids don’t have time to pack, leaving behind their clothes, toys, and things they need for school.”

PRESENT NOW helps fill the gaps in belongings and sense of home that children are missing.

Neumann developed the nonprofit with friend Erica Fisher after thinking about what they could do for the kids to bring them joy in a time of crisis. Because they can be at a shelter from 18 months to two years, children miss out on a lot of traditional moments.

“We knew from visiting domestic violence shelters around LA that the mothers are getting a lot of the support they need,” Neumann said. “But the children in some cases don’t even have their backpacks. Then the birthdays come around, and most of the women cannot afford even a small gift.” PRESENT NOW helps to fill these gaps by providing backpacks full of supplies in August, and then gifts for each child’s birthday along with supplies to make them a birthday cake, and an electronic educational gift
on Valentine’s Day.

Neumann and Fisher grew the organization slowly from their homes and with the support of friends and family. In its first year, they delivered 118 presents. Now, seven years later, they have delivered 7,574 presents, impacting 4,200 families. The organization has raised more than $2 million and serves 38 shelters in California and New York with the help of over 200 volunteers.

Volunteer group preparing packages

Volunteers help fuel the PRESENT Now project. Here they join cofounders Melanie Neumann '98 and Erica Fisher on a wrapping day in 2019.

They are also in the process of a national expansion project and hired an executive director one year ago. In their five-year plan, Neumann and Fisher are determining which cities and states have the greatest need.

“There are only 800 transitional domestic violence shelters in the country,” Neumann said. “The number of domestic violence reports have grown exponentially during COVID-19, with survivors stuck in close proximity to their abusers due to stay-at-home orders. It’s shocking and heartbreaking.
The need for resources has never been higher.”

Neumann said while she can’t give the gifts directly to the children—safety concerns for domestic violence survivors require strict anonymity—she knows the work is valuable.

“Since we’ve started, we have talked to many different shelters and experts in domestic violence who do coaching sessions for families. Through these conversations, we have learned that our programming is just not being done elsewhere, and certainly not available to children. The mothers who we are able to visit with share their gratitude because we have helped their children feel loved and less alone. That means everything.”

Neumann admits she’s drawn heavily on her time at Saint Mary’s to find the stillness she needs when she’s most overwhelmed by the tragedy of domestic violence. During her most challenging moments on campus, Neumann often found herself in a chapel to quiet her mind and regroup.

It turns out the resilience Neumann found at Saint Mary’s influenced her mom Bridget Torsell ’02. She too dreamed of graduating from the College before she had children. Once she saw how the experience impacted Melanie, she made the unusual (and hard) decision to move to South Bend, and graduate four years after her daughter.

“My mom made the brave decision to get her degree from Saint Mary’s,” Neumann says with a smile. “She lived on campus—naturally she was everyone’s mom while she was there—and graduated in 2002. I don’t know if I’m the legacy or my mom is, but she did what she felt she needed to do, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

Neumann looks forward to the day when she begins talking about colleges with her daughters—naturally she’s hoping they too choose Saint Mary’s—but she’s focusing on more important conversations right now. As her children grow older, she’s teaching them about healthy relationships and how to recognize when they are not. Through these lessons, she’s guiding them to a more resilient future, one where they too can help serve the needs of their communities and the world. 

Child seated on stepIt Can Happen to Anyone

Domestic violence is best understood as a pattern of abusive behaviors—including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion to gain, maintain, or regain power and control in the relationship. Here are the sobering stats from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: In the United States, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of employment or educational level, race or ethnicity, religion, marital status, physical ability, age, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. However, the burden of domestic violence is not shared equally across all groups, with women and many racial/ethnic and sexual minority groups being disproportionately affected.

The Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) provides the Saint Mary’s community with education, training, support, and advocacy efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking.